Steve Bannon’s European Partner Forgot the Pitchforks

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To anyone who read the blanket coverage last year of former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon’s plans to unite European populists, Belgian lawyer Mischael Modrikamen will be a familiar figure. As managing director of a Brussels-based legal entity called The Movement, of which Bannon is president, he was reportedly in charge of creating a well-staffed, well-funded, technologically advanced brain trust.

I spoke to Modrikamen last week at his Brussels home, which also serves as headquarters for The Movement and the People’s Party, which he founded and leads. It’s clear that if serious populist unification plans existed last year, the ambitions appear to have been scaled back.

Modrikamen said he never wanted to create an engine for a joint populist front in the European Parliament election that will take place in late May. Instead, he said, The Movement is a long-term project, a “club” for populist politicians in Europe and beyond. He sees it as a “populist international” along the lines of the left-wing “internationals” of the 20th century, but it sounds more like a version of the World Economic Forum, in which Modrikamen’s role would resemble that of Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab in the Davos-based organization. He fits the part.

‘Freedom to Act’

Modrikamen’s personal history is bizarre for a right-wing, populist politician. To start with, his last name (pronounced mud-REE-kuh-men), is Slavic despite its seeming French or Dutch sonorities, and means “blue stone” in several Eastern European languages. His father, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland, fought in the Belgian resistance as a teenager during World War II and was captured by the Gestapo. After the war, he rose through labor union ranks and ended up as the social democratic mayor of a small municipality that was eventually merged into the city of Charleroi in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. 

Modrikamen grew up in a house filled with leftist books and surrounded by his father’s leftist friends, but was drawn in his teens to the ideas of the French philosopher and sociologist Raymond Aron, a harsh critic of Marxism. The stories of corruption he heard about Wallonia’s left-leaning elite also contributed to his political conversion.

“By the age of 20, I knew I was an economic liberal with conservative values,” he said.

He went into law, starting with apprenticeships with big firms, including the Washington-based lobbying powerhouse Akin Gump, and flourished as a trial lawyer. Before he turned 30, he was getting big verdicts for his clients and making lots of money. He represented small Belgian shareholders in Fortis Bank, the Benelux financial powerhouse that crashed in 2008 during the global financial crisis, arguing on their behalf that the Belgian part of Fortis was a going concern that could keep operating on its own.

What followed was perhaps the biggest judicial scandal in Belgium’s history. Modrikamen convinced an appeals court that the government’s nationalization of Fortis’s Belgian banking assets and their fire sale to the French bank BNP Paribas needed the approval of a general shareholders’ meeting. Meanwhile, it transpired that the justice minister had been trying to influence the court to approve the sale. The minister resigned and the entire cabinet of Prime Minister Yves Leterme followed. The BNP Paribas sale eventually went ahead after a series of raucous meetings attended, for the first time in Belgian corporate history, by thousands of small shareholders throwing things at executives. 

Modrikamen is still trying to obtain compensation for his clients. But the outcome of Fortisgate, as it’s known in Belgium, solidified his conviction that Belgium’s political system was rigged against the common folks. He says he was also unhappy with an upsurge of anti-Semitism imported into Belgium by Muslim immigrants. 

In 2009, Modrikamen founded the People’s Party. He was going to drain the swamp; his motives, he said, were the same as Bannon’s.

“Sometimes you have to do something,” he said. “I felt I could do it because I’d earned a lot of money as a lawyer. I could do it and still remain independent. It’s just like with Trump, though he’s a billionaire and I’m not. He has money and it gives him freedom to act.”

In 2010, the tiny party got a seat in parliament. Things didn’t go smoothly. The man who occupied the seat, Laurent Louis, revealed himself as an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. Modrikamen expelled him from the party.

But the small political force has one legislator again, and it polls consistently above 5 percent in Wallonia, the threshold for getting into the federal parliament (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, Flanders, has different parties). That’s pretty impressive for a political startup in a system dominated by establishment parties.

The Bannon Project

Smoking a cigar in his vast home in a Brussels suburb, Modrikamen is an unlikely man of the people. But he’s a plausible friend for Nigel Farage, the former commodities trader and current Brexit ideologue; Modrikamen and his wife like to stay at Farage’s house when they are in London.

It was Farage who put Modrikamen in touch with Bannon.

The Belgian lawyer grew enthusiastic about Trump’s candidacy in 2016. “I’m not saying he’s a model, I’m aware of his weaknesses and his personality flaws, but I knew from the start he would be a big game changer,” Modrikamen said. He predicted Trump’s victory when no one else in Belgium believed in it, and after Trump was elected, he went to Washington for the inauguration. He also drafted a one-page memo for the Trump transition team saying that the movement that started with Brexit and Trump’s win had to become global.

“To be frank with you, I don’t think anybody read this memo,” Modrikamen said. “I don’t blame them. What’s this memo from a totally unknown Belgian guy?”

Still, in early 2017, Modrikamen registered a Belgian foundation called “The Movement.” It came in handy after Modrikamen got a call from Farage in June, 2018. The arch-Brexiteer told him he’d spoken to Bannon about Modrikamen’s idea of uniting populists and the former Trump strategist wanted to meet with him. The meeting took place two weeks later over lunch in Mayfair, and the two agreed that the battle against globalism was the fight for the world’s soul.

They also agreed on a few basic principles around which they thought populists could unite: The importance of national sovereignty and borders, defending Israel, skepticism about what Modrikamen calls “the climate hysteria.” They identified common opponents like George Soros and the mainstream media, not to mention the deep state that was supposedly creating legal obstacles for every populist winner, from Trump and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini to Modrikamen. They decided that the far-right fringe represented by Greece’s Golden Dawn party and Hungary’s Jobbik wouldn’t be part of their populist international.

“It was very simple,” Modrikamen says. “The globalists have the organization — of course, the UN but also Davos and more private venues like the Bilderberg Club — while we populists are all by ourselves in our countries. We don’t have these venues where we could meet each other and ultimately reinforce each other.”

When the two announced that Modrikamen’s Movement foundation would work with Bannon in Europe, Modrikamen received more attention than he’d ever known in his life. Reporters were flying in from New York to talk to him, galvanized by Bannon’s bold vision of The Movement’s future role.

The Washington Post reported that it would offer “nationalist and populist political parties across Europe U.S. know-how in polling, messaging and ‘war-room’ strategy for responding immediately to political attacks.” It would spend between $25 million and $50 million by the May, 2019 European Parliament election. The Movement was about to hold a summit-like founding convention in November, 2018 and, eventually, hire up to 15 staff.

The plans got some early support from Salvini, the man shaking up Italian politics, and his alliance with Bannon and Modrikamen (the American brought his new Belgian friend to his road show in Italy) was widely reported.

Wherever he went in Europe, Bannon beat a loud battle drum. “The beating heart of the globalist project is in Brussels,” he was quoted as saying. “If I drive the stake through the vampire, the whole thing will start to dissipate.”

Davos for Populists

Months later, the launch event hasn’t been held. First it was put off until January, now Modrikamen is aiming for March, but I couldn’t figure out whether invitations have been sent, much less whether anyone has accepted. A staffer handles press inquiries and communicates with Bannon’s staff in Washington, sometimes helping small populist parties establish U.S. contacts. Modrikamen said he exchanges emails with Bannon three or four times a week and talks to him on the phone once a week. No war rooms, big data or polling operations have been set up in Brussels.

Modrikamen, who has an election to fight in Belgium (the government fell late last year and the vote will be held simultaneously with the European Parliament one), says he never intended to do any of that heavy stuff, in part because it could be interpreted as foreign interference and in-kind financial contributions under many European countries’ laws, and in part because it would have had to be a dauntingly massive enterprise.

“Steve didn’t realize maybe immediately that when he was acting in the U.S., he was talking to 300 million citizens in one language, English, while Europe is 27 countries with as many languages and political traditions,” Modrikamen said. “You would need a huge team of people, huge machinery. It was never my intention. I prefer light structures. We’ll work hard on the summit, on establishing contacts, but I don’t want to devote 24 hours of my time providing assistance to some Croatian party. The aim is to bring these people together.”

By “bringing them together” Modrikamen means regular meetings and the facilitation of informal contacts. “Say, in Germany people want to sue the groups that bring in migrants on boats,” he said. “They need information from Italy. That’s the kind of thing that can be done.”

The populist international, Modrikamen says, could also include Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and, who knows, one day perhaps Trump himself. Perhaps even the Russians, Modrikamen said! (As a Russian who understands Russian-style populism all too well, I advised him against it.)

It would be a club for networking and discussion rather than an electoral vehicle. This approach explains why Modrikamen doesn’t worry much about the many differences between the populist parties in and out of Europe — in their attitudes toward President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, their conflicting economic agendas, even their degree of euroskepticism. Modrikamen doesn’t want to break up the European Union. Instead, he thinks it should become a loose confederation of states with a directly elected president and a supranational force defending the common borders. He also believes the euro benefits Belgium and a number of other northern European countries.

In a club, as opposed to a common electoral platform, all these issues are up for discussion. To be a member, a party or a politician merely needs to put its country first, Modrikamen said, and subscribe to the basic populist principles he’d outlined with Bannon.

While I’m not entirely convinced that Modrikamen can bring off the club idea, even with Bannon’s help, I’d like him to succeed. Not in the European election, which The Movement won’t be fighting as any kind of united ticket or even as a campaign coordinating center, but in creating a populist alternative to Davos. If the nationalists, right-wing ideologues and populist politicians start getting together regularly in their endless diversity, listening to each other’s stories and comparing their national agendas, it’s likely to moderate them and start them thinking about overcoming conflicts rather than breaking things. What really unites them today is their anger at their countries’ clannish elites; but once they vent it, there’ll be the vast complexity of life to discuss.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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